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A towering sarcophagus for a man with a Grecian name, an ancient medical scroll that details Mycenaean cures in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and a Roman mosaic illustrating scenes from the Nile are just a few of the incredible objects that tell the story of sustained trade and cultural exchange between Egypt and Classical Greece and Rome. The Getty Center exhibition Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World centers on this artistic exchange and in this episode, exhibition curators Timothy Potts and Jeffrey Spier explore some of the exhibition’s highlights.

Timothy Potts is director of the J. Paul Getty Museum; Jeffrey Spier is senior curator and department head of antiquities at the Getty Museum.

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Beyond the Nile exhibition information

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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art & Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

TIMOTHY POTTS: The first Egyptomania was invented by the Romans. The exotic monuments, the pyramids, the whole tradition of this great civilization to their south was embraced.

CUNO: In this episode I speak with Getty Museum Director, Tim Potts, and Getty Villa antiquities curator, Jeffrey Spier, about their exhibition, Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World, currently on view at the Getty Center.

Over thousands of years, Greece and Rome traded with, exchanged ideas and influences with, and eventually ruled over Egypt. The impact and consequences of this cultural interaction went both ways. The exhibition, Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World, currently on view at the Getty Center, explores the history and consequences of these intertwined relations.

The exhibition is the first of a projected series of exhibitions exploring the relations between the classical world, Greece and Rome, and non-classical cultures with which they were in contact. The series itself is called “The Classical World in Context.”

I met with co-curators Tim Potts and Jeffrey Spier in the galleries to discuss their exhibition.

CUNO:  Why don’t we start by talking about the theme of the exhibition, Beyond the Nile. Why Beyond the Nile?

POTTS:  Well, it’s part of, actually, a bigger program of exhibitions that we all wanted to do to put the Greek and Roman collection of the Villa in its broader cultural context. Greek and Roman art are very closely related to each other, and of course, they have that central place in the whole history of Western art. But what we’re not able to display through our own collection is the interactions in antiquity between Greece, Rome, and the other cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East.

So this exhibition is taking Egypt in particular and looking at how that culture, which was one of the great and important civilizations of the ancient world, how its relations, first with Greece, and then in later periods, with Rome, inflected the nature of the arts and culture more broadly in both regions. In fact, the influences went both ways. So that’s the overall theme of the exhibition, and it’s something that’s been debated and discussed and analyzed a lot in scholarly work, but never been brought together in an exhibition of this kind from the very beginnings of interaction in the third millennium BC, right through to Roman times and in late antiquity, say the third and fourth centuries AD. So a period of more than 2,000 years.

CUNO:  So we’re standing in front of a case from objects from Crete, or at least were found in Crete, but they come from Egypt and elsewhere. And they, to help us understand that this relationship of exchange and these kind of connections between culture and another, preceded the relationship you’ve just been talking about between Egypt and Greece. Tell us about the importance of this case and of these objects.

POTTS:  One of the interesting things about Crete is that it becomes one of these early palace cultures. We know from texts and references to them that the Cretan palaces had what were considered kings and rulers who, at certain times, were on a par, were considered brothers in the diplomatic language of the day, with the kings in Egypt. And we indeed see, right from the early Bronze Age to the late third millennium BC, the centuries before 2000 BC, we see Egyptian carved stone vessels and some cultures and other objects clearly, in their style and manufacture, and even bearing inscriptions with hieroglyphic writing, that appear in these palaces in Crete.

So clearly, there was exchanges going on. More likely, in fact, gift exchanges between the rulers of the palaces in Crete and the kings of Egypt. Probably some trade, as well. We know that things like olive oil and the various scents and unguents were traded between Crete and Egypt in later periods. So that may have been part of this exchange in the early years, as well.

CUNO:  Jeffrey, how did Crete know of the existence and importance of Egypt? I mean, how did they make their contact with each other?

JEFFREY SPIER:  Well, it’s a good question. We don’t know how, but we know that the Greeks, the Cretans especially, were sailors. There’s a lot of interaction all through the Mediterranean at that time. And I think everyone must’ve known the importance of Egypt, the most dynamic and powerful of all the cultures.

And they probably had a lot to offer in trade. I think the Cretans were going there with their olive oil, their scented oils, their aromatic herbs. There’s evidence they were trading silver to Egypt, which was desired in Egypt. So they were the sailors going to Egypt, we think.

CUNO:  Well, what about this pot since it would’ve held some sort of liquid, an unguent of some kind.

POTTS:  Well, the one we’re looking at, which is a black stone with these very distinctive white inclusions in it, which creates this very attractive material, these are very hard stones, and the Egyptians really excelled in making stone vessels of— from these very hard materials. In fact, right through antiquity, they were known for their ability to work these hard stones. This is the sort of high-quality production that would’ve been valued just for its beauty as an object, but also may have contained some precious oil or scent of some kind that made it doubly worthy as a gift.

The interesting thing with this one is that it’s been modified. Once it got to Crete, they’ve added a spout to it in a different stone. And it’s a bridge spout as it’s called, very well-known in Minoan ceramics and stone vessels of this time. So it’s distinctively Cretan, not Egyptian, as an addition. And they’ve gone to the length, though, of carving into the stone of the spout, these little recesses, where they clearly were inlaying it with a white material, which has now been lost.

But they were imitating the white inclusions of the black stone in the addition that they made of the spout. Which is, you know, going that extra step making it, appropriating it as a Minoan or a Cretan object, even though it’s an object which has exotic value, coming from Egypt.

CUNO:  We talked about there being an important trade of olive oil and other agricultural items between Crete and Egypt. These, though, look like they were gift exchange objects, given the scale and nature of them. What did that represent?

SPIER:  We have evidence that there were these exchanges at a high diplomatic level, for reasons of trade, primarily with Crete. The Egyptians had an interest. And when we saw the Mycenaeans come in shortly after this, around 1450 BC, the first Greek-speaking people take over Crete, and they continue these diplomatic policies. We have from Egyptian records, evidence of a royal mission going around the Aegean, visiting these sites.

I think for the Egyptians, it was primarily for trade, although we also have evidence of Greeks fighting in the Egyptian army. They came there as mercenaries under the Mycenaeans.

POTTS:  And it’s not just with Crete that the Egyptians have these long-distance relationships. In fact, the most important of all seems to have been the connection with Byblos, the Phoenician city in what is modern Lebanon, where particularly for the cedar, the woods, the timbers that of course, don’t grow along the Nile, but do in Lebanon, there was a lot of trade, even going back to the early third millennium.

So clearly, the Egyptians were aware of where there were resources that they valued in other parts of the Mediterranean, and they made the effort to establish contacts with those cultures.

CUNO:  So let’s look over here at this case, which has script on the papyrus. And tell us the importance of this and what it tells us about the relationship.

POTTS:  Well, this is a medical text. So it’s, you know, incantations, the sort of ritual things you would do, as well as with sort of what they considered medicines, but also in terms of rituals you’d perform to make someone better. And the interesting thing is that this one refers to the language and to the prescriptions of the Keftiu. And Keftiu was the Egyptian word—Well, not just in Egyptian, but it’s the word in the ancient world for Crete. In fact, in Bronze Age inscriptions from various cultures, the Keftiu are referred to. So it’s interesting that they actually explicitly quote something as being in the language of the Cretans.

CUNO:  Uh-huh. But it was made and inscribed in Egypt, yeah?

POTTS:  Yeah, yeah. It was an Egyptian product.

CUNO:  There’s multiple languages on this, as I recall.

SPIER:  It’s all written in Egyptian, but it shows a level of understanding far beyond anything we would normally know. It’s the sort of evidence you love to try to find. It shows that somebody, an Egyptian writing in Egyptian, was able to understand that foreign language.

CUNO:  Uh-huh. So just so I understand this, there are words then from the Cretan language on here.

SPIER:  Correct. It’s transliterated into Egyptian. But it shows that they understood, or that they knew the language, or else you wouldn’t be able to transliterate it into—

CUNO:  I see, I see. Well—

POTTS:  We do know in this period—’cause we’re now talking about the sort of second millennium BC, middle and late Bronze Age—we have other inscriptions and letters and things which make very clear that they were translators, residents in the courts of the Mediterranean and Near East, who would be able to translate from Akkadian into Egyptian or from Cretan into Egyptian and so on.

So they had very sophisticated diplomatic apparatus.

CUNO:  Yeah. This is a medical text, is that right?

SPIER:  Yes. I mean, this particular one is talking about skin rashes and treatments for them. So I think it shows, even beyond that, it shows an interest in Cretan medicine and a knowledge of Cretan medicine. And to say, this is what they do on Crete, there’s a high regard for the medical knowledge.

POTTS:  And there are letters a bit later than this, a century or two later, where you get kings asking other kings, their brothers, who were the rulers of other cultures, to send their best doctors of such and such to their court. So that obviously, they were ill or someone in their family was ill and they traded doctors, as it were, between these courts.

CUNO:  So this first gallery that we’re standing in represents the sort of introduction of the theme of the exhibition, of contact and exchange. We go into the second gallery, we see now stylistic relationships between sculptural objects. And the very first one is this gigantic sculpture, the sarcophagus. If you could describe this for us and why this then represents the continuation of this theme.

POTTS:  Yeah. Well, in the first gallery, basically, that covers the Bronze Age. So from roughly 3000 BC to, say, 1200 BC, when things come crashing down, all the palace cultures of the Mediterranean are destroyed in a wave of migrations. There might’ve been climate change and other factors, or even earthquakes involved. But clearly, there were a series of conquests, and the Hittite empires fall, the Mycenean palaces fall, all in Syria and Lebanon. The only culture which survives pretty much unscathed is Egypt itself.

There’s a number of battles in the early twelfth century when they repel these so-called sea peoples. After that moment, for a few centuries, the trade connections and other contacts between cultures of the eastern Mediterranean are much diminished. It does seem to have been a period of sort of recession, cultural decline, and so on. Again, except for Egypt, where things more or less go on as they had been.

And we see a gradual reawakening of connections in the eighth and seventh centuries, when the Greeks are allowed to establish trading colonies in Egypt. And are, indeed, colonizing all the way, in the west, to Spain, up into the Black Sea and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. But their presence in Egypt, therefore, is part of a pattern of recolonization and reestablishing these international links at that time.

What is very interesting in this sarcophagus is it’s a thoroughly Egyptian object. You know, the burial, the sarcophagus of a high official, the so-called seal bearer of the king, in totally Egyptian style, with elaborate hieroglyphic inscriptions. Of course, he gives his title and his name. But interestingly, also the names of his parents. And although it’s written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, phonetically, the names are clearly those of Greeks. His parents are Alexikles and Zenodote.

And these, of course, are obviously Greek names. So this person had risen in the twenty-sixth dynasty, seventh or sixth century BC, to a high level in the administration, even though his parents were Greeks, and clearly, he was therefore of Greek origin. But it’s an indication of how much some Greeks had been able to integrate themselves into the administration and into the hierarchy of Egypt by this period.

CUNO:  And by administration, do you mean the sort of governing administration within Egypt? Do you have any sense of how high in that administration?

POTTS:  Well, the seal bearer was a fairly senior position. So this would be someone who would’ve interacted perhaps with the king, would’ve been known. And you see from the imposing— both the quality and scale of the sarcophagus—and it’s made in one of these very hard, dark stones, which are, as I was saying before, are so hard to carve. Only the priestly workshops and the royal workshops would produce things of this quality. So he was clearly a very significantly, you know, high official.

CUNO:  Yeah. So our listeners, of course, can’t see this, but the scale is enormous. I mean, it’s about half my height again above me, so it’s well into the seven foot or eight foot tall in height, and it’s about five feet deep. It’s all entirely a stone, which is broken apart, in half, and then the middle of it is being carved out for the body to be put in. And then it’s inscribed or cut out with the hieroglyphs, but also with figurative elements on it. Was there anything in Greece on this scale? Carved on this scale?

POTTS:  Well, interesting. This is the moment at which the Greeks, inspired by Egyptian objects like this, and even more so, the royal sculptures in temples that were on display and were there to be seen—at very large scale; some of them, you know, thirty, forty, fifty feet tall—this is the moment at which the Greeks do get the idea of making monumental sculpture out of stone, for the first time since the Bronze Age. And it’s, indeed, in objects like the one behind us over here where you very literally see, by comparing an Egyptian statue on the left and one of these early Greek sculptures of the seventh or early sixth century on the right, you see how closely the Greek form of the standing male figure—the kouros—reflects that Egyptian prototype.

CUNO:  So before we look at these standing Greek sculptures, let’s look at this head, because this head introduces the theme that you just described, of a relationship between the Greek development of sculpture and the Egyptian precedent.

SPIER:  Yes, this is a head of a pharaoh Apries, probably dating from around 580 BC, something like that. It’s the time that the Greeks are resident in Egypt. And as Tim said, there was no tradition of large-scale sculpture in Greece at this time. Coming from the end of the Bronze Age, there just was nothing of this scale. But when they came to Egypt, they must’ve been astounded by what they saw, and they sought to make their own versions of this.

The head of Apries here is a twenty-sixth dynasty pharaoh. And it is notable because at this time, the Egyptians would occasionally into new elements. And here, he’s shown with a slight smile. They have high cheekbones and pursed lips, which give the impression of a smile. And we think that this is where the Greeks picked up this mannerism, which is so apparent on early kouroi. They also have what’s often called an archaic smile. And it’s clear that the Egyptians were the ones who invented this.

CUNO:  There’s a certain amount of naturalism to this, too, because the cheekbones are raised up like this and the way there’s a sense of implied movement in the cheeks and face of the figure.

SPIER:  Yes, you see that on the early Greek sculpture, too.

POTTS:  And it might be worth mentioning, also, it’s not just in sculpture that this is the beginnings of the Greek tradition as we know it in Classical times, but also with architecture. And temples and things had been mostly, before this time in Greece, wooden, with perhaps terra cotta decorations. And it’s at this point that, again, based on what they saw in Egypt, they started developing the ambition to build temples in stone.

And of course, within a century or century and a half, you have things like the Parthenon being constructed, which were unimaginable 200 years earlier.

CUNO:  Yeah. And you mentioned just before we looked at that head of the figure, are these two sculptures of human scale. The one Egyptian on the left, and Greek on the right. Describe them to us, and describe the relationship, one to the next.
POTTS:  Sure. The Egyptian one on the left, the stance is essentially the same. They always have the left foot forward; the static but striding stance, if you like. The arms more or less straight down by the sides, perhaps a little bent at the elbows. In the Egyptian versions, they often hold what is thought to be just a bolt of cloth in their hands, which is some sort of signifier of holding an office of some kind, a symbol of status.

He wears a sort of loincloth, a kilt, in the Egyptian version; whereas the Greek ones are, from the start, shown naked. And that’s, in a sense, one of the key differences between the two. So the Greek tradition is to show the figure fully nude, whereas the Egyptian has his kilt on and has a headdress, a particularly elaborate— But this is, in fact, an Old Kingdom style, going right back 2,000 or more years earlier, because the period in which this was made, the twenty-sixth dynasty, they liked reviving, old styles, archaic styles.

But still, essentially this form of the body had been the standard representation, particularly for funerary sculpture, and to some extent royal sculpture, right from 3,000 BC up until, you know, Roman times. So we could’ve chosen an Egyptian sculpture from 3,000 BC, 2,000 BC, 1,000 BC, or the year one, and it would’ve looked more or less the same. The key thing is how the Greeks, even in this early period, with the one you see here on the right, the musculature is that much more naturalistic.

It’s a little more fluid; it’s not quite as stiff and stylized. And then of course, within a few decades from this, you’ll get them starting to put the arms in different positions, where they really are more gestural, beginning to express movement and so on. So it becomes part of the basic modus operandum, if you like, of the Greek way of making sculpture. And you know, by the 430s, you have things like the frieze of the Parthenon in London and in Athens that is, you know, a world away, in terms of its naturalism, from anything Egyptian.

SPIER:  It’s also important to note that the Egyptian ones are very rigidly frontal. And they remain that way straight through into the end of the Greek period. They have back pillars, which you can see here, a pillar, a flat pillar, running up the entire back to the head. Which the Greeks never copied that. The Greeks always—

CUNO:  [over Spier] And on this pillar are hieroglyphs that tell us something.

SPIER:  Usually, yes. They usually are inscribed with the name of the person. But they also made it very rigid. You know, the poses were always frontal, where the Greeks, fairly quickly, wanted to experiment with pose.

CUNO:  Certainly, the difference between the Egyptian and the Greek sculpture suggest in my mind the difference between Egyptian architecture and Greek architecture, as Tim, you were saying that this would lead the Greeks to monumental architecture. But the Egyptian architecture is so much more rectilinear and so much more rigidly formal, whereas the Greeks, you have the sense of pulsing rhythm to the columns of the Parthenon, and the sense of a change, of a difference, a kind of a living example in the sculpture and in the architecture. Is that a difference that the marble makes, or a difference of the aesthetic?

POTTS: [over Cuno] Oh, in that case, I don’t think it’s so much the material, ’cause you know, the columns in Egypt could equally well be freestanding, as they were on the peristyle of a Greek temple. But as you say, the finesse, the little nuances in Greek architecture, such as the intersis of the columns, they’re slightly swelling, because if you actually make them straight, the optical illusion makes them look as if they’re actually getting thinner in the middle.

So to compensate for that, they make them slightly bulging. So you don’t really notice that they’re bulging until if you sort of measure them. But those little nuances give the Greek architecture, if you like, a slightly organic feel that you don’t get in Egyptian work.

CUNO:  Yeah. Let’s go look at some of these extraordinary dark stone heads in this gallery, because they introduce a kind of naturalism that I’ve been hinting at in the earlier sculptures, now in these later sculptures of the Egyptian.

POTTS:  This group of sculptures brought together here take us into the Hellenistic period, which is the fourth century BC and after. And of course, the great event of that century was Alexander the Great’s conquest of the whole of the ancient Near East, the Achaemenian empire, which he then, in a sense, inherits. And Egypt is part of that empire. So this is the period which sees the Macedonians and the Greeks rule Egypt, and through that, a layer of, if you like, Classical culture beings to hybridize with the native Egyptian traditions.

And there’s no better illustration of that than in the sculpture tradition that we see in this group of objects, where the naturalism that has, by this stage, become the very core and the main thing about Classical sculpture, by this period. It’s not just realistic in movement and musculature, but very expressive, also, in terms of action and showing people’s emotional, if you like, psychological life.

We don’t get that in Egypt. But we do get elements of verism or realism in the representation of character, the expressions of age, the sort of sunken cheeks. Looking at this head from Boston and the other one behind me, from Berlin, you have a sense of character and portraiture that you never have seen in Egyptian sculpture to the same extent before.

There is something of a debate about how much of this is a development which is really internal to Egyptian art. It’s a more exaggerated form of the naturalism that you see in episodes of earlier Egyptian art, particularly in the Middle Kingdom, with the royal portraits of Sesostris and Amenemhat. But never does it get to this form of character study and conveying the age and individuality of the portrait. So you know, my view is that this clearly reflects the influence of Classical Hellenistic art. But there are others who would say it’s an internal development within Egyptian culture itself.

But you don’t ever see anything before the, say, fourth and fifth century BC, with anything like this level of naturalistic detail. So to me, it would seem an incredible coincidence if you do get it in the fourth century, just when the conquests of Alexander come into play.

CUNO:  Yeah, and we walked right by a sculpture, marble sculpture of Alexander. And that, I take it to be a Greek import, because you wouldn’t have had marble then in Egypt. Is that correct?

POTTS:  Well, they did work marbles, as well, but that work itself is a Greek work.

SPIER:  And it’s really made in Egypt. It’s probably made in Alexandria. But they imported the marble. Alexander the Great founded the new capital, named after himself, and this became the big Greek enclave in Egypt, and where the Ptolemaic kings, [background noise] the Greek rulers of Egypt, would be based.

And they certainly had their workshops for making marble, and they addressed both populations. So, they would be making portraits of themselves; portraits of the kings in marble, in Greek style, for their Greek citizens; and then they’d be making traditional Egyptian-style representations of themselves in the hard stones or in the limestone reliefs of temples.

CUNO:  So what allows Alexander and the Greeks to come and triumph in Egypt?

POTTS:  He leads his army from Macedonia first into Turkey, into ancient Anatolia. Various battles there with the forces of Darius. And eventually, of course, conquers them, chases them, you know, all the way through Mesopotamia and elsewhere. So it was the fact that he defeated the great power of the day, which was the Persian king. And within the empire of Persia, was Egypt, as a very important part of it. So he, as it were, inherited Egypt through his conquest and defeat of the Persians.

CUNO:  But Greece would’ve been a small state at the time, relative to Persia and relative to Egypt. And so how did he mass such a big army that was so successful?

POTTS:  This is, of course, a huge subject of discussion in people who study the ancient world and how superior— But he was clearly a great strategic general. I mean, there were a lot of battles where he was totally outnumbered, and yet through the brilliance of his, you know, generalship, he was able to defeat the Persians in battle after battle. It was sometimes a very close-run thing, and some battles could’ve gone either way; but he managed to pull it off in the end.

CUNO:  Now, he’s triumphant in Egypt, but he dies shortly thereafter.

POTTS:  Yeah, he dies in Babylon. He goes all the way to the borders of India, and then comes back along through the south through Iran, and ends up dying in Babylon, in 323 BC. And then his generals who had been with him on campaign carve up the empire after his death. And Ptolemy, one of his most important generals, is able to take Egypt. That’s why the period in that dynasty is known as the Ptolemaic Dynasty, because all of them, in fact, more than ten of them in succession, their names are all Ptolemy, first, second, third, fourth, and so on.

CUNO:  Yeah. But they’re coming into Egypt being triumphant in Egypt, Alexander then going off to Babylon and dying there. Nevertheless, there’s enough left behind in Egypt to solidify the rule of the Ptolemies in Egypt.

POTTS:  Well, yes, ’cause when he conquers regions, he often would leave veterans of the campaigns in the cities or in the regions that had been conquered. Egypt was, in a sense, one of the closest. And so there was a long history of Greek presence and engagement, as we’ve seen earlier in the exhibition.

It wasn’t as if there was a huge influx of population, necessarily. It was much more the administration. It was the senior people in the administration and in the government, if you like; and then traders, others, of course, would come into play underneath that. So it wasn’t that it was, you know, one massive wave of Greek immigration at one time; it would’ve happened over time, over the centuries.

CUNO:  And these heads, these extraordinarily naturalistic, finely-carved heads that we were just talking about, coming from the Ptolemaic periods, they’re of a size to be portable. Would they have been exported to Greece?

POTTS:  Well, they are portable. Particularly the one from Boston is smaller than the others. But these two are probably portraits of priests and might’ve been either in their tombs or in temples to the Apis bull, as we think the one from Berlin was probably found in the chapel to the Apis bull.

So they wouldn’t have been portraits in the sense of something to have in your home or that would’ve been traded, so much as they would’ve been commissioned by the priest himself, for his tomb or for presentation in a temple or a shrine.

CUNO:  Mm-hm. So in these first three galleries, we’ve gone with galloping speed from Crete to Egypt to Greece. That is, the introduction of Greece in Egypt. How much time is elapsed from the first gallery to the third?

POTTS:  Well, the first one, we were talking about things that were imported into Crete before 2,000 BC, and we’re standing around sculptures which were made about 300 BC. So I’d say around 2,000 years to this point. And of course, now we go another 500 years, to get to Late Roman times.

CUNO:  Yeah. Describe, as we walk towards the evidence of Roman sculptures, the character and stability of the Ptolemaic periods.

POTTS:  Well, the Ptolemaic Kingdom was one of the most stable of the successor empires, if you like, or kingdoms of the Hellenistic period, together with the Seleucids in Syria. Some of the others, you know, expanded and contracted, and some, in fact, went out of existence altogether. But the Ptolemies, because Egypt was such a wealthy region— It was the breadbasket of Rome, as it was known, very rich agriculturally, very rich by having gold and other— some other raw materials.

So Egypt really was a very strong power base for whoever ruled it. And that was the Ptolemies for the period through to the end of the Hellenistic period, and then after the civil wars in Rome and the triumph of Augustus Caesar, Marc Antony and Augustus, then it becomes part of the Roman Empire, as founded by Augustus.

And as I said, for Rome, it remains the most important part of the empire because if you ruled Egypt, you had a huge amount of agricultural and other resources, great wealth. It was a great platform. And always a risk, because the person who ruled Egypt could become so powerful that they might be a challenger to the emperor. So it was somewhere you needed to keep an eye on.

CUNO:  And the last Ptolemaic ruler was Cleopatra.

POTTS:  Yes. Cleopatra. And of course, famously, who has relations with Caesar and Antony, and then, commits suicide. So she’s a, you know, important character. We have one of the very few, I think, plausibly-attributed portraits of her. We think we know what she looked like, mostly from coin portraits. Not to modernize a great beauty, but she clearly had great powers of seduction and persuasion and other things.

And was a great character. And it’s wonderful to have a portrait of her in the show, right beside the single greatest portrait of Julius Caesar that survives from the ancient world.

CUNO:  Yeah, let’s look more closely at these sculptures. So, the Cleopatra is carved in marble. And if I recall correctly, it was in Rome.

SPIER:  Yes, it was found in Rome in the eighteenth century. It was probably in a villa. And I always thought this was probably imported from Alexandra. It looks very much in that Ptolemaic style. Perhaps one of the supporters of Julius Caesar, she was resident in Rome with Julius Caesar for a couple of years, and at the time of his assassination before going back to Egypt with their son, Caesarian.

CUNO:  Yeah. And next to it is the Julius Caesar that Tim mentioned earlier. What’s immediately striking about this is that there’s two materials in this hard stone.

SPIER:  Yes, but I think those eyes are modern. They were inlaid, the way Antony’s were. But we think that’s a modern inlay.

CUNO:  But the other obvious thing we can tell is distinct with this sculpture, and also the head of Marc Antony to the right, is that it’s turned to three-quarters. It’s not straight on at you, as the others ones are. What does that mean?

SPIER:  It’s very interesting that they’re using the traditional material we were just looking at for those priests, this hard, dark green schist that the Egyptians used, which when it’s beautifully polished and cut, it just has a beautiful effect. But the Greek artists in Alexandria were looking at this, too, and we’re starting to see them use the same material. So this seems to be a Greek interpretation of Egyptian portraits, in a way. But as you can see, it’s very much in Greco-Roman style.

CUNO:  But what about that three-quarter turn?

POTTS:  By this period, of course, you’ve had Hellenistic art where things were shown in violent action, all sorts of different gestures and angles. So by this stage in Classical art, to have the head turning slightly to the left or right is absolutely normal. This is a standard part of Classical portraiture, by this point.

As I was saying earlier, Egypt was the place where the tradition of working in these materials was deepest. And yet by this period, for generations, you’ve had Greeks working in Alexandria and elsewhere, also working in these stones. So was this carved by someone who we would think of as a Greek sculptor or as an Egyptian sculptor, or does that distinction really even mean anything at this point, is hard to say.

CUNO:  Well, let’s go around the corner, now that we are about to leave Egypt for Rome. But before we do, I wanna look at this Roman Era mummy. And I want you to describe it to the podcast listener, because it does mix these again[?] cultures together, as we’ve been talking about.

POTTS:  Well, we’re standing in front of a mummy. You can tell it’s in the form of the deceased person. He’s been wrapped in linen cloth. And in fact, you know, if we could see into the mummy, his organs have been removed. He would’ve been embalmed in various oils, unguents and so on, after being dried in natron. So rather desiccated then, as it were, these preservative oils and so on, and then the linen garments wrapped tightly around him.

What’s very interesting is the combination of the types of painting that you see on the figure and on the face. Onto the figure itself are traditional Egyptian motifs of various deities, Nut and others, and Osiris and so on, the god of the underworld. So this is standard Egyptian practice, representing the fact that this person is being buried very much in the native Egyptian tradition.

But then you when you look to the head, the covering over the face, laid into the wrappings, is a portrait which looks very much in the Classical tradition. It’s a painting on a flat surface, but it’s got the shading and the colors and all of the stylistic elements of a Roman portrait of the kind you might see on the walls of a villa, you know, in Pompeii or Herculaneum.

Was he Greek? Was he Roman? Was he Egyptian? Again, did those distinctions really matter to the person who was buried? But it is interesting that the cultures have become so hybridized that you could be buried in a thoroughly Egyptian tradition, with Egyptian gods shown on the body of the wrappings, and yet the representation of the face, the key thing which, as it were, represents your identity as a person, is in a totally Classical tradition. Dark hair, he’s wearing a wreath of some kind. He’s a typical Greek-Roman Classical person.

CUNO:  Would this mummy have been in a sarcophagus that would have had also some examples of maybe Roman Era painting on it? Or would it have looked for all intents and purposes, like an Egyptian mummy?

POTTS:  Well, at this period, it would depend on status. Most burials would be wooden, just simple wooden sarcophagi, at this point. And I suspect this one might’ve been of that. But it’s also possible that it would’ve been a stone sarcophagus. I would guess that it would’ve more likely been in the Egyptian tradition than in the Greco-Roman tradition. It seems to be particularly the mummy portraits, the faces, the representations of the faces, that reflect this Classical identity, and that the rest of the burial tends to be still in the Egyptian tradition.

CUNO:  Yeah, it’s such a fascinating thing that it combines so many different elements of the different cultures. You just described the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the body of it, and then the Greco-Roman features of the painted face. But we also know his name, which is a Greek name, I think.

POTTS:  Yeah.

SPIER: Herakleides the son of Thermos. It’s written in neat Greek letters just above the toes. So we do know he went by a Greek name. He may have been ethnically mixed, Greek and Egyptians. We know that they used both Egyptian and Greek names.

CUNO:  And we also know from other examples of this kind of portraiture, the mummy face coverings, this what we call Roman Era portraiture, that there was quite a extensive practice of this in and around Faiyum, I think, right?

SPIER:  Mm-hm.

POTTS: [with Spier] Yes.

CUNO:  Would they, those that we no longer have their mummies attached to their painted faces, would those necessarily have had mummies like this, with this kind of Egyptian hieroglyphics on them? Do we know what was the standard practice at the time?

SPIER: [over Cuno; inaudible] Yes, all of those portraits would’ve been bound into the wrappings of the mummies. This particular mummy’s a little more ornate than most. They’ve dyed it red, which has religious significance. This is sort of a deluxe version of some of the mummies.

POTTS:  This is Roman period, so we’re talking first, second, and third centuries AD. There were plenty of Egyptians, though, who would’ve been buried in a purely Egyptian manner. So instead of having one of these painted portraits, they would’ve had what’s called a mummy cover, which is actually a three-dimensional wooden, or sometimes it’s just gesso and painted into the form of the face. But a three-dimensional representation of the face, a much more stylized one, not an individualized portrait like this painted one, but sort of, if you like, a very poor man’s version of the Tutankhamen masks. But in wood and painted. Which represents the face, but in a totally generic way. So that’s, in a way, what a Egyptian who isn’t of Greek or Roman heritage would’ve had for their burial.

CUNO:  Now, at the end of this gallery is something that we should talk about, because we’ve been talking about the Nile and the importance of the Nile. And the exhibition itself is called Beyond the Nile. But this mosaic of this Nilotic scene, this is clearly something that was of attraction to a Roman, this would’ve decorated a Roman villa, Herculaneum or Pompeii, but it’s a scene of the Nile.

POTTS:  Well, the Nile became one of the, if you like, tropes of what made Egypt so exotic and interesting to the Romans. And it should be said that the first Egyptomania was invented by the Romans. After they acquired Egypt as part of their empire in the late first century BC, the exotic monuments, the pyramids, the whole tradition of this great civilization to their south was embraced. And there are forms of decoration in wall paintings, in decorative arts, small vessels and including representations in mosaic, like this one, show people enjoying themselves along the banks of the Nile. Here they are reclining, probably drinking, making merry, and you see around them, people going about their business working, a man in a boat with the fish he’s caught. There are crocodiles swimming, I think, and other Nilotic creatures.

There was sort of the Hollywood idea, if you like, the Romans view of a Hollywood idea of this exotic culture. So you see it, you know, often in elite contexts, in villas in Herculaneum or Pompeii, or even at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli.

CUNO:  Yeah. Yeah, what’s so clear about this is that they have Romanized the Nile. All the sort of recreational activity that’s going on would be strictly out of a Roman painting, but in this case, a micro-mosaic. You don’t get a sense of it as a foreign country, but rather one that’s been fully included within the realm of Rome.

POTTS:  Yeah, and it’s in a medium which, of course, was Classical, namely mosaic. But of course, there would’ve been, by this point in Roman times in Egypt, plenty of people dressing and looking like Romans or Greeks of the first, second, third century AD. So this could have been— I mean, it’s a exaggerated, as I always say, Hollywooded version. But scenes like this would’ve existed.

CUNO:  And then into the next gallery, we see a number of paintings that were originally on the walls of villas or the walls of domestic structures, which are now then, framed in wooden frames. But these show, again, more these extraordinary Roman interpretations of life on the Nile. In one case, where there’s a hippopotamus and there’s a gigantic crocodile that looks almost like a— like a dinosaur. And there’re all these figures coming in out of the woods, looking very much like a Roman painting of the period, or even of a seventeenth century version of a Roman painting of the period.

SPIER:  Yes, I think we see two things going on here. We have this exoticism that they love the idea of Egypt and the Nile, even if they don’t quite get it right sometimes; it’s just a couple of ibises walking by to set the scene. Or here, it’s Pygmies fighting crocodiles and hippos and in one case, riding on one. So these were clearly humorous decorations for Roman villas, this one from Pompeii. The other part of this was, there is a genuine interest in the religion of Egypt, even if it’s not fully understood.

The Cult of Isis and her consort Serapis becomes extremely popular in the Roman Empire. So here we also have objects from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, a fresco showing Isis receiving the Greek mythological woman Ios. So they’re combining traditional Greek mythology with Egyptian.

POTTS:  It’s interesting; for them, this hybridizational syncretism between religions, identifying, you know, Aphrodite, or Venus, as they would’ve called her, as a form of Isis, or Isis as a form of Venus. This was sort of not a problem for them in their religious activities and conceptions.

And in fact, not just with Egypt, but with Mithra and other deities from other cultures around the Mediterranean and Near East. Religions were much more fluid and permeable, if you like.

CUNO:  You mentioned the word Egyptomania. And we’re looking here at a cup that’s made of obsidian, with pink and white coral, and carnelian and jasper and lapis lazuli, with malachite, framed in gold, as it’s described on the label. You could’ve found this on a boudoir in France in the 1920s.

SPIER:  Isn’t this quite extraordinary? It’s an enormous wine cup—you need both hands to lift this, I’m sure—carved from obsidian, natural volcanic glass, which is a real luxury object in Rome, carefully carved and inlaid with Egyptian scenes. This was found at Stabiae, near Pompeii, one of the cities buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. One of a pair, in fact.

But it shows Egyptian figures and the Apis bull in a little shrine. I doubt very much it’s fully understood what’s going on. I think this is for your drinking party, to show that you had an interest in Egyptian themes.

POTTS:  And they often used hieroglyphs, or even motifs, as on this cup. They adapt them from genuine Egyptian objects that they might have seen, but they then combine them in ways that are just aesthetic. So they don’t really make sense iconographically anymore. And indeed, some of the inscriptions, they copy hieroglyphs and put inscriptions in temples and in other contexts, where the inscriptions are total nonsense. They actually don’t read as Egyptian; they just like the look of them. It’s to create the effect.

CUNO:  And the same might be said of this. This is probably just stuff that was thought to have been vaguely Egyptian-like that was put on this.

POTTS:  For instance, the shrine that you have this ram in, which is one representation of one of the deities, the roofline, they’ve given it this rounded roofline. That’s not the way it would actually be in an Egyptian shrine. So they’re adapting them slightly. But really, what they were going for was the look.

They loved the idea of these, you know, beautiful, exotic Egyptian marvels. And clearly, this was an absolute marvel technically. It’s exquisitely carved. And all of the rich materials it was inlaid with. It would’ve been the most glamorous object.

CUNO: Yeah. Well, this may not be the most glamorous, but it’s the most lovable object in the exhibition. We were talking about the hippopotamus in the painting. Here is a nearly, I suppose—could be even, in fact—a life-size baby hippo, carved in a red-pink marble. Talk about this and how it was made into a fountain.

POTTS: Yeah, as you say, it’s in a red marble. It’s a sort of baby-sized hippo. He’s probably, what, about four or five feet long, and three feet tall or so. But charming. He’s sort of trotting along with the right-hand leg lifted. There is, in fact, a pipe, a bronze pipe, which goes up through one of the legs and comes out through through the mouth. So it would’ve been a garden fountain of some kind, found, I think, in Rome, early on.

So clearly, these sorts of things were, you know, again, part of this Egyptomaniac enthusiasm for things that conjured up life along the Nile. And as well as in a mosaic, you could have sculptures like this in your fountain, in your garden, in Pompeii or Herculaneum or in Rome, as in this case. And who wouldn’t want one?

CUNO: Well let’s close the tour of the exhibition, which has been an extraordinary tour for me, certainly, with this sculpture by Antinous.

POTTS:  Well, Antinous was the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The connection with Hadrian is important, in that we’re standing here in a gallery where most of these objects are from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, which was his retreat outside Rome. It has been much excavated, and the source of many of the great Roman sculptures in museums around the world. And as you can see, a number of them are carved from these same very dark, hard materials, which the Egyptians excelled at.

But, tragically, on one of his trips– their trips to Egypt along the Nile, Antinous drowned. And Hadrian was devastated by this, and established shrines to his deceased lover Antinous, throughout the empire. So Antinous is one of the most represented figures in the ancient world. Now, this image we’re looking at is very much a Classical standard type. The fact is certainly not an accurate representation of what Antinous would’ve looked like. But he’s wearing a form of Egyptian crown called the nemesh, with the cobra coming down the front, which is the symbol of royalty.

So in a sense, he was creating an image of Antinous as a king or as a demigod, as he was seen in Greek and Roman religion. And this is one of the greatest surviving sculptures, and we still have it. It’s still on its original circle[?].

CUNO:  Now, it’s fantastically imposing as a sculpture. And it’s got already a kind of Neo-Classicizing look to it, as if there’s a self-conscious attempt to emulate an earlier style. At first glance, one could’ve thought that it was made by Canova [Potts: Yeah] at the end of the eighteenth century or the nineteenth century.

POTTS:  In a way, of course, Roman art was Neo-Classicizing. It was, you know, 4- or 500 years after the style of the work, was reproducing works in, let’s say, a fifth century or fourth century BC Greek style. So you’re absolutely right. To our eyes— Roman art is very much the first Neo-Classicism in the ancient world, in the same way that it’s the first Egyptomania in the ancient world.

CUNO:  Now, we’ve been galloping, as I said earlier, through the centuries here, and going from Crete to Egypt to Greece to Rome. And the whole idea, as you articulated it so well at the beginning of our tour, is to put the Classical world of the Mediterranean Basin in greater context. And that is, in fact, a theme that you’re going to be pursuing over many exhibitions to come. Describe to us that theme, and also the importance of it for the Getty and for the public.

POTTS:  Sure. Well, I perhaps just could refer back to the origin of the Greek kouros that we talked about earlier. A fundamental moment in the history of Greek art came about through the Greeks visiting Egypt, trading there, seeing their monumental sculptures, bringing back that idea. And then from that, we get the origin of the kouros figure, which becomes the starting point for that whole naturalistic development, which gives rise to Classical art.

So that sort of interaction between the Classical world and other culture is very important for understanding the trajectory of Classical art. And unfortunately, through our collection, we’re not able to show those links within our collection itself, since we don’t have the Egyptian works, the Syrian works, the Persian works, the others, the Phoenician works. So instead of doing it through our own holdings, with this series of exhibitions, we’ll take each of those cultures in turn—Egypt first, and the next one will be Persia—and show how the back and forth culturally, linguistically, artistically, how those interchanges affected both the Classical world and those other cultures at various points in history.

CUNO:  How many such exhibitions do you have in mind?

POTTS:  We have a list of eight to ten to these. So that’ll keep us busy for quite a while.

CUNO:  Yeah. It’s an ambitious goal for this sequence of exhibitions. How difficult is it to get these loans from the museums [Potts: Yeah] that have these objects, in for an exhibition like this?

POTTS:  It is very difficult. Many of the objects in this exhibition are among the greatest masterpieces of those museums, whether it’s in Berlin or Paris or the Vatican or the Capitoline in Rome or whatever. And so they don’t lend these things lightly. And not just because we would like to give our visitors the benefit of seeing them. It really is the power of a good idea. So they have to be persuaded that by having their works in this exhibition, everyone’s understanding of that period, that moment in art history when these exchanges between Egypt, in this case, and Greece and Rome were taking place that that understanding will be pushed forward, so that there’s a real scholarly benefit to the enterprise. And it’s only really because we can have been able to persuade people of that, that we have these loans.

CUNO: Well, it’s a great ambition and it’s a great exhibition, so we thank you, Tim and Jeffrey, very much for bringing it to the Getty Center.

POTTS:  Thank you.

SPIER:  Thank you.

CUNO:  Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art & Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

TIMOTHY POTTS: The first Egyptomania was invented by the Romans. The exotic monuments, the pyram...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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